Fans of Ray Bradbury are going to love this one. The animal below is a bullet ant, a remarkable creature in its own right. But the weird animal of the day is not the ant, nor an animal at all, but a fungus. Specifically, the one growing out of the ant’s cranium.
Its name is Ophiocordyceps unilateris, a member of the larger cordyceps family of predatory fungi. This species preys specifically on the carpenter ant, which lives in the rainforests of Central America. Here’s its modus operandi: An ant will accidentally tread on a spore that’s been waiting on the forest floor. The spore attaches itself and sends out hyphae (the fungal equivalent of roots) that seek out a weak spot in the ant’s exoskeleton. Once found, the hyphae enter the body and penetrate the ant’s brain.
Here’s where things get really interesting: the fungus starts controlling the ant, forcing it to climb as high as possible into a nearby tree. It then compels the ant to climb to the underside of a leaf and clamp down with its mandibles, then kills the ant. Then the fruiting body emerges from the head, releasing its own spores to the forest floor, where the process starts over again. Not only does the fungus make the ant climb and hang upside-down, thus ensuring that its spores will be released over the greatest possible area, but it always makes its zombie slave carry it to the northwest side of the tree, where presumably wind and temperature conditions are optimal.
I bring up Ray Bradbury because of his excellent short story “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms In Your Cellar!,” in which alien fungi propagate themselves through mind control and mail-order novelty kits. Turns out the idea of mind-controlling mushrooms wasn’t far-fetched. The larger thing to take away from this, though, is that the mushroom, not being conscious, has no idea what it’s doing. When people think “mind control,” they tend to think of evil hypnotists, cult leaders, and Professor X. But your mind can be controlled by things that aren’t even self-aware, which have no idea that they’re manipulating you for their own survival. I myself always want to believe in “free will,” but the evidence against is always building up. An ant’s mind isn’t hard to crack, I suppose, if you’re a fungus pulling levers in its brain. But who am I to say I’m not being equally controlled by a force that, if not predatory, might be at least parasitic? Whether it’s a fungus designed to infiltrate my gray matter, or a tenacious idea, or simply a viral meme, it’s possible that my actions are not entirely my own. Something else might be using me to survive, making me do its work. I think we’d all be wise to continually check ourselves for psychic organisms and unwanted hitchhikers whispering in our ears, living in the blind spot behind our egos, to make sure we’re really the ones in the captain’s chair. Que no?
Here’s a great video from David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth, about the cordyceps fungi, so you can see the little bastards in action: